What Is Civil Law? Definition and Examples

Civil law is both a legal system and a branch of law. In the United States, the term civil law refers to court cases that arise over a dispute between two non-governmental parties. Outside of the U.S., civil law is a legal system built upon Corpus Juris Civilis, the Justinian Code which originated in Rome in the sixth century. Most Western European states have a civil law system. In the U.S., Louisiana is the only state that follows the civil law tradition due to its French heritage.

Key Takeaways: Civil Law

  • Civil law is a legal system, influenced by the sixth-century Justinian Code.
  • Civil law predates common law, which is used throughout the United States.
  • The U.S. legal system divides offenses into two categories: criminal and civil. Civil offenses are legal disputes that occur between two parties.
  • Civil law and criminal law differ in key aspects like who presides over the cases, who files the case, who has the right to an attorney, and what the standard of proof is.

Civil Law Definition

Civil law is the most widely adopted legal system in the world. A legal system is a set of codes and procedures used to carry out laws.

Civil law spread with the creation of the French Napoleonic Code of 1804 and the German Civil Code of 1900. (The German Civil Code served as the legal foundation in countries like Japan and South Korea.) Most civil law systems are broken into four codes: the civil code, civil procedure code, criminal code, and criminal procedure code. These codes have been influenced by other bodies of law like canon law and merchant law.

In general, civil law trials are "inquisitorial" rather than "adversarial." In an inquisitorial trial, judges play a large role, overseeing and shaping every part of the proceeding. Civil law is a rules-based system, meaning that judges do not refer to past rulings to guide their decisions.

In the United States, civil law is not a legal system; rather, it is a way to group non-criminal cases. One of the biggest differences between civil and criminal cases in the U.S. is who brings forward the litigation. In criminal cases, the government bears the burden of charging the defendant. In civil cases, an independent party files suit against another party for wrongdoing.

Common Law vs. Civil Law

Historically, civil law predates common law, which makes the foundation of each system different. While civil law countries trace the origin of their codes back to Roman law, most common law countries trace their codes back to British case law. The common law system was developed using jurisprudence at its outset. Civil law focuses on the legal code and asks judges to act as fact finders, deciding whether a party violated that code. Common law focuses on jurisprudence, asking judges to interpret laws and respect decisions from previous and higher courts.

Juries represent another key difference between the bodies of law. Countries that adopt a civil law system do not use juries to adjudicate cases. Countries that employ common law use lay-juries, groups of individuals without any specific experience, to determine guilt or innocence.

The way a lawyer practicing in each system might approach a case helps highlight the difference between these bodies of law. A lawyer in a civil law system would turn to the text of the country's civil code at the start of a case, relying on it to form the basis of his arguments. A common law lawyer would consult the original code, but turn to more recent jurisprudence to form the basis of his argument.

Civil Law vs. Criminal Law

In the U.S. legal system, there are two branches of law: civil and criminal. Criminal law covers behaviors that offend the general public and must be prosecuted by the state. The state might prosecute someone for battery, assault, murder, larceny, burglary, and possession of illegal narcotics.

Civil law covers conflicts between two parties including individuals and businesses. Examples of cases covered under civil law include negligence, fraud, breach of contract, medical malpractice and marriage dissolution. If someone damages another person's property, the victim may sue the perpetrator in civil court for the cost of the damage.

  Civil Law Criminal Law
Filing In a civil trial, the injured party files suit against the perpetrator. In a criminal trial, the state files charges against the perpetrator.
Presiding Judges preside over most civil trials, but a jury may be requested in certain cases. Defendants facing serious criminal charges are guaranteed a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment.
Attorneys Parties are not guaranteed legal representation and often choose self representation. Defendants are guaranteed legal counsel under the Sixth Amendment.
Standard of Proof Most civil cases are tried using the "preponderance of the evidence" standard. A tipping of the scales, this standard is much lower than "beyond a reasonable doubt," and suggests a 51 percent probability of guilt. In order to convict someone of a criminal offense, the prosecution must prove that they committed the crime "beyond a reasonable doubt." This means that the jury must be reasonably sure that the defendant is guilty.
Legal Protections The respondent in a civil case does not have any special protections. Criminal defendants are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment. They are also protected under the Fifth Amendment against compelled self incrimination. 
Punishment Civil convictions result in fines and court imposed penalties. Criminal convictions typically result in jail time or parole.

In general, civil offenses are less serious than criminal offenses. However, some incidents can be tried in both civil and criminal court. For example, theft could be a civil or criminal charge based on how much money was stolen, who it was stolen from, and in what way. A more serious version of a civil crime might be tried as a criminal offense.

Although most civil cases cover disputes like fraud and breach of contract, they can also involve more serious crimes where victims suffer harm. For example, a company could sell an untested product that injures the consumer. That consumer could sue the company for negligence, a civil matter. Negligence can also be tried as a criminal matter if the perpetrator completely departs from the course of action that a reasonable person would take. Someone who is criminally negligent shows indifference and disregard for human life.

Sources

  • Sells, William L., et al. “Intro to Civil Law Legal Systems: INPROL Consolidated Response.” Federal Judicial Center. www.fjc.gov/sites/default/files/2015/Introduction to Civil Law Legal Systems.pdf.
  • Apple, James G, and Robert P Deyling. “A Primer on the Civil-Law System.” Federal Judicial Center. www.fjc.gov/sites/default/files/2012/CivilLaw.pdf.
  • Engber, Daniel. “Is Louisiana under Napoleonic Law?” Slate Magazine, Slate, 12 Sept. 2005, slate.com/news-and-politics/2005/09/is-louisiana-under-napoleonic-law.html.